BRUSSELS -- As an exultant Britain awaits the birth of a royal baby, Belgium is preparing to install a new king this weekend and wondering what this means for its own less joyous bout of royal baby mania, over a birth that took place 45 years ago.
Played out in serious newspapers, gossip magazines and, for the past month, a Brussels courtroom, Belgium's fixation with royal bloodlines revolves around Delphine Boël, a now middle-aged artist who insists she is the illegitimate daughter of Albert II, Belgium's soon-to-be ex-king.
The palace has not denied this but has not confirmed it either, sheltering behind a high wall of royal reserve. "This is a private affair, and we have no comment whatsoever," said a palace spokesman, Bruno Neve.
One thing, though, is certain: Ms. Boël will not be on the guest list on Sunday when Belgium's political and social elite gather to watch Albert II, 79, sign a declaration of abdication and then his son, Prince Philippe, 53, be sworn in as this tiny nation's new monarch, its seventh since Belgium became an independent state in 1830.
Unlike most European royalty, Belgium's monarchy still has modest but, on occasion, critical political powers. In addition to his duties cutting ribbons and hosting banquets, Albert II played an important role in settling a political deadlock after inconclusive elections in 2010 that left Belgium without a government for more than 500 days.
Nevertheless, monarchy in Belgium has always been something of an improvised production. When the country's founders first decided they needed a king, they shopped around Europe for a suitable candidate. Rebuffed by a member of the French royal family, which sniffed at Belgium as an inconsequential upstart, they settled on a jobless German aristocrat, Prince Leopold Franz Julius of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
He became Leopold I and grumbled constantly about his fractious subjects, whom he derided as "unsufferable creatures." Next came Leopold II, who did not like Belgium or its people much either, sneering at "the little country, little people and little spirits." He set about expanding his domain by seizing and exploiting the Congo as his personal property, an episode of wild brutality and greed that has made his name a byword for the worst excesses of colonialism.
But while not short of skeletons in and already out of their capacious family closet, members of the Belgian royalty have so far been unable to figure out what to do about Ms. Boël and her claims to be one of their own.
"They are paralyzed," said Mario Daneels, a Belgian writer who first revealed in a book published in 1999 that Albert fathered an illegitimate child in 1968 with his mistress then, a Belgian aristocrat. "They don't know what to do. You put a camera in front of a Belgian royal and they start stuttering."
Ms. Boël, who says she is that child, has steadily escalated what began as a discreet lobbying campaign for recognition into a very public battle to break down the palace's defenses. A professional artist, she has turned art into an irreverent weapon. A neon sculpture she created reads "Love Child," the two words separated by a red heart topped by a yellow crown.
Complaining of canceled bank accounts and other indignities because of "the situation surrounding my existence," Ms. Boël said in a statement that "I don't believe that my legal action will end all discrimination against me or my family, or mend my personal relationship with my father, but with DNA proof there will be undeniable certainty about my identity."
In a series of interviews with Belgian and French news media, Ms. Boël has insisted that she has no claim on the king's fortune but simply wants to heal the wounds caused by decades of rejection. "I am deeply saddened, but I believe blood can work wonders," she was quoted as saying last month after she began a legal action to try to prove her royal lineage through DNA tests.
A genial figure who mixes easily with his subjects, Albert has worked hard during his 20-year reign to narrow the gulf between his country's Dutch-speaking regions in the north and Francophone areas in the south. Many Dutch speakers still view the monarchy as an alien institution that speaks mainly for the French-speaking community, but few bear Albert any personal animus. His son, Philippe, speaks Dutch as well as French but has a more prickly character that will make mediation even more difficult.
Across the linguistic divide, reverence and even respect for the monarchy have become increasingly rare. The news media in both languages now jump on royal gaffes and any hint of scandal. "I almost feel sorry for them," said Mr. Daneels, the writer. "There is a climate where they can't do anything right."
The possible existence of an illegitimate daughter has not helped, setting off a flood of testimonials by disenchanted actors in the drama. After decades of public silence, Ms. Boël's mother, Sybille de Selys Longchamps, told two Belgian newspapers last month that she understood and supported her daughter's efforts to gain recognition. "I want to re-establish the truth," she said, describing an 18-year-long affair with Albert II.
For years the king lived apart from his wife, Paola, an Italian aristocrat who loathed Belgium's rainy weather and chilly northern ways, and the couple came close to divorce. All the same, they had three children, including Philippe. Albert and Paola later patched up their relationship and now often appear in public together.
The king has not directly addressed the question of whether Delphine Boël is his daughter, though he did refer in a 1999 speech -- made soon after the publication of Mr. Daneels's book -- to a 1960s "crisis" in his marriage. The oblique remark was widely interpreted as a tacit acknowledgment of extramarital liaisons.
In an editorial last month, La Libre, a French-language newspaper partial to the monarchy, heaped praise on Albert for his "perfect reign" but added that it was now time to answer nagging questions: "Is the king the father of Delphine Boël or not? If yes, why does he wait to recognize her?"
"This affair, which certain people are trying to turn into an affair of state, should be solved with love, tact and discretion. For her, for him and for the others," the editorial said.
The moment for a discreet settlement, however, has already passed: frustrated by repeated failed efforts to make contact with King Albert, Ms. Boël went to court in Brussels last month to try to force him and two of his official children, including Prince Philippe, to give DNA samples to try to prove paternity. Two hearings have so far been held, both behind closed doors.
Ms. Boël's lawyer, Alain de Jonge, declined to comment on the proceedings but said that Albert's abdication should help lift a major obstacle to her case: once he steps down, he no longer has immunity and is subject to the law like all other citizens. "He will lose his inviolability," the lawyer said.
The mess is already creating headaches for Philippe, who will be, as of Sunday, Belgium's new monarch. On official visits he is hounded by journalists asking him about the woman nearly everyone in Belgium views as his father's illegitimate daughter.
But, like the family as a whole, he has kept his own counsel. Asked about the matter during a recent tour of the Brussels offices of Procter & Gamble, he firmly rebuffed prying questions: "This is not the place for that."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.